Taking Care of People

Source: The US Library of Congress, 1942 July. This image is in the public domain.

“Women in war. Machine gun production. Intent on the important job at hand, Elsie M. Terry uses a precision snap gauge on the machine gun part she has milled. One of 2,000 women employed by a Midwest plant, converted from spark plugs to machine gun manufacture, Mrs. Terry typified the American woman war worker. Serious, skilled and reliable, she is making an invaluable contribution to the war effort. A.C. Spark Plugs”

What’s new?

A December 2020 article from Modern Machine Shop, which somehow just caught my attention, says that a company acquisition has to focus on the human aspects to be successful.

What does it mean?

The article, by Christina M Fuges of MoldMaking Technology reports on the company B-Square Precision Group, founded by two individuals (Mark Beck and Tony Butler) with the plan to acquire a portfolio of companies in high precision manufacturing. The article touches on many trends, including the impending retirement of many owners of smaller shops, manufacturing approaches such as lean and ISO certification, and strategies for portfolio construction, such as combining companies that can cross sell each other’s capabilities. The central idea of the article is the need to focus on people.

With its goal of acquiring other companies, B-Square has many people issues to pay attention to, since the retiring managers and the continuing employees of acquired companies often legitimately fear that the company will be broken up, that cost cutting measure will be implemented and will degrade work enjoyment, and that any existing company culture will be brushed aside.  

The B-Square approach includes the importance of training employees, initially and on an ongoing basis, putting safety first in the list of five metrics to be tracked, improvements to pay and benefits, improvements to shop conditions, and increasing collaboration within the company.

What does it mean for you?

Precision manufacturing requires high end machines and highly skilled workers, so one could argue that the focus on the humans in B-Square is necessary to retain employees and to maintain the necessarily high level of skill, but I argue that all companies could benefit from treating their workers as highly skilled and as valuable. I have never worked in restaurants (my partner Mark has) but I know that high levels of skill in the kitchen and on the floor result in a much better customer experience. On the other end, as a highly skilled professional, I have been appalled to realize several times in my career that my employer viewed me as simply another professor, easily replaced and not really needing to be nurtured.

Management advice often focuses on how to treat workers, with emphasis on teams, incentives, and more. The risk, I think, is platitudes. An encouraging feature of this article is a quote from an employee: “Mark and Tony stress that it’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s not about management. It’s about the team,” suggesting that the management in this case is acting, not just talking.

Engineering has a long history of recognizing the importance of humans in systems. My field, industrial and systems engineering is a leader, with specialties in human factors, cognitive engineering, and ergonomics. The electrical engineering society IEEE has a division called Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. While the second and third words in that trio have not aged well, the name lives on.  

The truth is that all production systems are systems of technology and humans. You imperil the success of the system by underemphasis on either of those pieces, from the simple fact that people have to use the technology correctly to gain the benefits, through to more sophisticated ideas about using technology to augment what workers do (from decision support systems through heads up displays for pilots). If you want technology to work for you, you must have a high level of attention to the humans in the system. Technology works best when it is considered as part of the system of machines and humans.

Where can you learn more?

You can learn much about how to view systems of machines and people through many fields. Search for phrases such as socio technical systems (applied, for example, in healthcare), human factors (this blog post explains four approaches to that topic), and cognitive engineering. Recent developments have highlighted how automation and AI (artificial intelligence) should work together with humans; see, for example, new ideas on augmented workers.

Almost all approaches to systems thinking include humans in the system.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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